Claire Hill and Richard Painter’s new book is the latest addition to their long line of work on the complex interaction between law, economics, culture, and individual behavior in the fast-moving world of investment banking. In this exceptionally well-written book, Hill & Painter target what they view as the fundamental problem with today’s Wall Street: the fact that bankers (a term that denotes mainly investment bankers and other securities industry professionals) are allowed to behave in socially harmful ways, without suffering meaningful personal consequences. Alas, the authors don’t need to try very hard to convince us why this topic is both timely and important. What seems to be a never-ending string of scandals involving large financial institutions rigging prices, misleading customers, and helping clients cheat tax authorities and creditors provides plenty of evidence to that effect. If, after all these ugly revelations, you still trust bankers’ assurances that they are “doing God’s work,” you haven’t been paying attention.
In the book, Hill & Painter explain why, in recent decades, Wall Street bankers so consistently failed the public whose money they purport to manage. While not necessarily breaking new ground in this well-trotted area, the book does a great job of telling a rather impressively comprehensive story of how, in the course of the last few decades, investment bankers gradually abandoned their professional ethos in favor of purely self-serving pursuit of personal profit that is at the core of today’s culture of “irresponsible banking.” Hill & Painter trace the transformative changes in the business model of modern investment banking in the context of the increasingly competitive, globalized, computerized, and impersonal marketplace. One of the central themes here is the loss of bankers’ unlimited personal liability as a result of mass conversions of investment banking firms from partnerships to publicly traded corporations. Hill & Painter masterfully depict how this seemingly innocuous change reshaped the structure and culture of Wall Street from the 1970s on. To this broad-brush picture, they add nuance by dissecting some of the psychological factors driving individual investment bankers to disregard society’s interests and gamble with other people’s money. I found that part of the book particularly enjoyable and insightful. Continue reading "Contracting for Ethical Banking"